I should have visited the Woodfire Grill a few more times before posting a review, but after my live tweeting and the build-up leading to our outing to Kevin Gillespie’s baby, I reasoned I had to go ahead and give you my impressions so far.
Simply stated, my Woodfire Grill dinner experience was nothing short of spectacular. This was pleasantly surprising since I went into this soiree with three assumptions:
1. The rule is that if the chef is famous enough for one to know his name, he’s not working the kitchen anymore. I thought that this would ring particularly true since Kevin had shot to superstardom after making the finals during Top Chef. I pictured Kevin too busy gallivanting throughout the world’s finest culinary venues, taking pictures with food groupies, appearing at events, and exchanging witty banter on TV to be working on a humble Tuesday night.
2. It’s extraordinarily difficult for a restaurant to maintain excellence when it becomes famous and slammed. Shortcuts are taken. Compromises are made. The best restaurant experiences generally occur at the more obscure destinations that have young, intense chefs with something to prove. The kind of places that are only talked about by the foodie elite in hushed tones.
3. The food never lives up to the hype. At the end of the day, it’s just a good restaurant in Atlanta with an incredibly talented chef. It’s not a private dinner for 12 at Versailles with Kevin himself carefully plating every dish.
Well, I was wrong. And, although I will never give four knives to a restaurant without multiple visits to ensure that pervasive excellence isn’t circumstantial, it’s on the short list of restaurants in Atlanta that have a shot of getting the full four knives.
We started the evening with cocktails while the 8:30 seating became available. The Woodfire Grill has some interesting cocktail choices and we opted for the Champagne Cocktail and the Blackberry Bramble. The Champagne Cocktail consisted of oregano syrup, dolin blanc vermouth, lemon juice, marques de gelida cava and actual fresh oregano. It was a delicious and awesome, if quirky, beginning to our meal. The Blackberry Bramble had Hayman’s Old Gin, fresh muddled blackberries, fresh lime juice and creme de cassis. Although a little bit less experimental, it was also excellent. It was here that we spotted Kevin himself, donning his signature black chefwear. He was incredibly gracious, taking pictures with everyone, and taking the time to talk to the patrons. I was playing it cool until it was picture time; I have to admit, I got a little star struck. It was then that I proceeded to ask the stupidest question that you can ask Kevin : “Was it brutal cooking for (Thomas) Keller?” Kevin was as gracious as he could be with yet another person asking him the same set of questions over and over. As a side note, I find it ridiculous that Kevin’s fans made a Facebook fan page dedicated to his beard, but I have to admit that his beard is righteous.
The restaurant has a quirky layout, and the lighting, although perfectly adequate and bright enough for human eyes to enjoy his dinner, makes it very, very difficult to take good photographs without annoying the fellow diners with intermittent flashing. Therefore, I apologize for the picture quality of this review and will hopefully get a better set during my next visit.
Service throughout the night was fantastic, even as dinner service swelled and the restaurant was obviously under a lot of pressure. The ambiance was energetic and diners seemed excited. There was an eclectic mix of diners that made me feel that it was neither a hangout for the beautiful people, nor the kind of wood-paneled monstrosity that’s conducive to power dinners and policy sessions. These were genuine food enthusiasts.
Our server brought us some bread: pecan and raisin, foccacia and a compound butter with so many ingredients that I lost count. Those that stood out were garlic, lavender, and thyme. The server also went over the menu carefully. The options are few, and you’re encouraged to do the 3-course chef’s tasting or the 5-course chef’s tasting. Both are blind, meaning that you have no idea what’s coming, and the 5-course requires the participation of the full table. All guests will be served the same first four savory dishes, and the desserts will vary from diner to diner.
Shortly afterwards, a delightful amuse bouche made an appearance, already plated in spoons. It was a black-eyed pea and rice fritter, sitting on a collard green gribiche. Then the first course arrived, and with it, a revelation of what is possible. This may very well be one of the best first courses I’ve ever had. It was a sage water battered hen of the woods mushroom, sitting on top of a ossau iraty fonduta with candied garlic syrup. An intense, creative, beautifully-executed and revelatory dish that instantly set the standard so high that I forgot about my sad list of assumptions. Everything that was to follow was superb, but nothing captured our imagination and pleasured our palates quite like it.
The second course arrived: a pan-seared scallop, beautifully caramelized on top of a radish carpaccio, with lavender shrimp and blood orange supremes. The scallop was perfectly cooked. The textural contrast between it and the carpaccio was awesome, and the blood oranges managed to cleanse and refresh the palate. We were then introduced to a second amuse bouche: oyster on a half shell, steelhead roe and a lobster cream. I don’t care for oysters, but I still found it to be good and beautifully presented on top of salt, which not coincidentally seasoned the oyster as I lifted the shell to eat it.
At this point, we saw Kevin. Done with the photo-opps, he continued to destroy my list of assumptions by going right to the kitchen to help expedite. Also, I’d had enough wine that the quality of the pictures started to take a dive, and I actually forgot to photograph the third course before mangling it with my knife. The dish was awesome: an intoxicating, wood-grilled quail with a potato emulsion and a roasted chicken jus. The very essence of wood grilling was imbued into every bite. To call this dish excellent is a staggering understatement. Although not as revelatory as the first course, it was beyond delicious.
Finally, we arrived at the last savory course of the night: pork two ways. A fig-glazed piece of delectable pork belly coyly hiding under a piece of pork loin and beside a farro risotto so succulent, it should be illegal. This is easily one of my worst pictures, so I apologize, but the dish was beautifully plated with the endive and the apple-balsamic smear.
It is at this stage that you long for dessert. The assault on your taste buds is overwhelming, and you seriously consider the possibility of being permanently ruined by food this good. Two desserts came out: a bread pudding with meringue and apples, and a chocolate-crêpe and espresso concoction. Although I’m sounding repetitive by now, they were both awesome and deeply satisfying.
Our Sybaritic meal had concluded, and not without silly grins. Although basic common sense can be applied and it is possible to have a meal at the Woodfire Grill for a reasonable price, I’m not sure that my id would let my brain order anything other than the five course tasting menu. And I suppose that’s the only reason why patronizing this restaurant will not be as frequent an event as I’d like.
That being said, I’m withholding the final rating until I’ve eaten there at least one more time. A defining quality of a four knife restaurant is absolute consistency in execution, creativity and service and it’s just not possible to gauge all of that in one visit.
We shall return.